REVIEW: The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry

Newly released anthology of Newfoundland poetry reveals depth of province’s talent.

Mark Callanan & James Langer
The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry
St. John’s: Breakwater Books, 2013
215 pages / $19.95
Published: April 10, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-55081-408-8

Narrowing down the contributors list to 11 must have been a challenge for editors Mark Callanan and James Langer, a task that likely ruffled more than a few feathers in Newfoundland’s extensive and close-knit writing community. The result: an anthology that is far from exhaustive, but rather a concert of the province’s strongest voices. Perhaps the best outcome of the limited number of poets featured is that each has his or her own section of several poems, giving the reader a feel for each writer’s personality, from Agnes Walsh’s talent for exposing the truth of her characters (Our Boarder Alfred, He Must Have Been 300 Pounds), to Sue Sinclair, who can make you empathize with a bell pepper (Red Pepper).

The poets’ sections are arranged in chronological order by first published collection, recreating the recent evolution of verse in Newfoundland. Al Pittman, whose poems open the book, continues to make a mark on the literary scene 12 years after his death. His poems made me want to return to a life I never had, one which somehow resounds with all of us – small towns, big wilderness, innocence. The childhood we’ve all somehow internalized, whether we lived it or not, is recounted beautifully, but without sentimentality in The Border and Cooks Brook. He leaves you longing for a Newfoundland that will never again be, which perfectly sets the tone for the remainder of the collection.

Remarkably, the poets featured in this anthology are able to capture their characters more fully than are many novelists. In reading, you are engulfed by the worlds of John Steffler’s family in Dividing Island, of Michael Crummey’s Boys, and of Richard Greene’s inherited stoic silence in Whaler.

Patrick Warner, the last on the scene and the final entry in the book, brings distinctively modern fare – anorexia, dime-bags, psychotherapy – to the fore, and one gets the sense that he is reconciling the tribulations of parenthood through his writing.

The collection reflects a people grasping for identity, mourning the loss of simpler outport life and struggling to find their footing in a new reality. After reading the book cover to cover, I found myself agreeing with Ken Babstock, that “We should be held and forgiven” (Compatibilist), and hoping that it might be so. In short, this is an excellent introduction to Newfoundland poetry; if it does not give the reader an idea of the province’s breadth of talent, it certainly reveals its depth.


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